Keep Your Mixes Consistent by Using a Reference

When I started this blog, I thought my readership would consist of Color Theory fans. Now it’s clear that most of you are fellow musicians with your own material to promote. With that in mind, I’ve decided to take a short detour into my true area of expertise: music production. God knows I’m better at making music than I am at selling it!

Like most of you, I work a “day job” to pay the bills. I run my own CD mastering business by the name of Resonance Mastering. Unlike other mastering houses, I don’t believe in “corrective mastering.” If I hear a problem with a mix, I’ll ask the client to go back and fix it! Many clients routinely hire me for mix consultation, in which I offer detailed suggestions on each track in order to fine-tune their release before mastering. I run into the same problems again and again, so I find myself offering up the same solutions, which I’ll present here over the course of a few articles.

Refer to a reference mix

TIP 1: Periodically A/B your mix against the same reference mix in each of your song projects

It used to be common for an album to be recorded in several studios, yielding an inconsistent set of mixes. Some might be thin or bright while others are boomy or muddy. These days most albums are mixed in a band member’s home studio. You’d think that songs mixed with one set of ears in the same room would be consistent, but that’s not always the case.

The best method I’ve found to keep my mixes on target is to periodically A/B them against the same reference mix. Find a song with the tonal balance you’re looking for, insert it onto its own track in your project, set its fader to match the volume of the song (IMPORTANT!), and then mute it. Every twenty minutes or so, solo it. If it sounds bright, that means your mix is too muddy. If it sounds bassy or dull, your mix is too bright. If you use the same reference for every song, you’ll produce a consistent set of mixes.

I’ve been using the same reference mix for years: “True Love Wars” as covered by Neuropa on their Beyond Here and Now album (originally recorded by Erasure). It’s not the cleanest recording in the world, but it’s balanced and the instrumentation stays basically the same throughout the entire song.

Since the ear’s frequency response varies according to volume, it’s important to always mix at the same level. If you mix too quietly, you’ll turn up the bass and hi-hat to compensate for the lack of boom/sizzle (which is exactly what the “loudness” button on your stereo receiver does). If you mix too loudly, your ears will tire and you’ll find yourself creeping up the volume and craving more high end. The sweet spot is 85 dB SPL, which is safe for up to 8 hours per day. Radio Shack offers two inexpensive Sound Level Meters. I use the $50 digital version (catalog number 33-2055), but you can save $5 by going with the analog one. Set the dial to 80, the response to slow, and the weighting to C, then hold it in the mix position as you adjust your monitor level.

radio-shack

None of this negates the need to revisit your mixes with fresh ears over several sessions. Even in a treated room with accurate monitors, comparing to a reference mix at a consistent volume level, I don’t trust my ears after a half hour or so. I’m always bouncing from mixing or mastering to e-mail or web surfing to give them a break.

For more mixing advice, see my other articles:
Make Space for Tight Bass
A Mastering Engineer’s Guide to Final Mixdown
Spectral Management

17 thoughts on “Keep Your Mixes Consistent by Using a Reference”

  1. This is a great tip! I hope you continue the series over at LEAST the four planned articles.

    I found your blog through Mark Nicholas’ article a few months ago, and have found it interesting. My interest is basically academic, though, ’cause it’s unlikely I’ll ever promote a CD. But in the last few months decided to have a go at recording some of my songs, so I bought a microphone and a soundcard. It’s been slow going, trying to bootstrap myself out of total ignorance. I’ve found that accessible expert advice on the Internet is a rare thing, and I’ll be thrilled to glean some of it here.

  2. This is a great tip! I hope you continue the series over at LEAST the four planned articles.

    I found your blog through Mark Nicholas’ article a few months ago, and have found it interesting. My interest is basically academic, though, ’cause it’s unlikely I’ll ever promote a CD. But in the last few months decided to have a go at recording some of my songs, so I bought a microphone and a soundcard. It’s been slow going, trying to bootstrap myself out of total ignorance. I’ve found that accessible expert advice on the Internet is a rare thing, and I’ll be thrilled to glean some of it here.

  3. Great advice and these are some great variations on tips I’ve read before. Yours are much simpler, to the point, and easy to follow. Well done and I look forward to the series! Look out Charles Dye. ;)

    Monty

  4. Great advice and these are some great variations on tips I’ve read before. Yours are much simpler, to the point, and easy to follow. Well done and I look forward to the series! Look out Charles Dye. ;)

    Monty

  5. Brian…In all honesty, I’ll have to say I’m a little disappointed. I’ve been a subscriber to your blog for at least a couple of months and have loved it! I have ‘Alexa’ in my toolbar and have used it to decide which websites to properly utilize my time…I’ve tried a myspace ‘friend adder’…I’ve even got a video on YouTube and another on the way soon. All this from your tips…It’s great to have up-to-the-minute marketing ideas from a guy whose been at it for awhile and is still in the game…not reporting last years news…

    I went to Barnes and Noble today…bought the latest issue of Computer Music Magazine (guide to MIDI, how to record Bass, etc), purchased a Pro Tools LE 7 Ignite book, picked up a book I had ordered titled Guerrilla Home Recording and looked at a pretty good beginner book called Home Recording For Musicians For Dummies…all right there at the store. What did they have for online music marketing techniques? Nothing…

    Brian, you were filling a niche…I hope you’ll reconsider. We need you!!!
    Good Luck,
    Chuck
    DigitalDreamSociety.com

  6. This makes me wonder about mixing with headphones. That 85 db spl, is that sound pressure in an open room? Does that change if you cover your ears?
    I think you make a great point about keeping a reference.
    I was listening to some of your songs again, referencing the track you posted, and I would say you’ve found the sound your going for.
    Excellent post.

  7. Don’t worry Chuck! I’ve only got four “mix tips” articles planned, with dozens of promotion topics lined up. I’m humbled that you’ve implemented so many of the the techniques discussed here.

  8. I don’t know of any reliable way to calibrate the volume on headphones. I can usually get into the 82-88 dB range without checking the meter on my monitors, so I bet I’m working at a safe level on phones too. I suppose you could work on monitors at 85 dB, then switch to headphones. After a bit, go back to monitors and see how loud they seem in comparison. Bouncing back and forth like that can be disorienting though. If you find yourself wanting to turn up the volume every few minutes, or your ears ring when you finish a session, that’s obviously too loud.

  9. Hi Brian,

    I believe you forgot one important thing: what sound are you measuring? It doesn’t make sense to pick any audio you are working on at the time.

    You can download a -20dBFS RMS Pink Noise WAV file from Bob Katz here: http://www.digido.com/media/downloads/category/1-general.html

    Play this and this alone when you are measuring SPL to calibrate your monitors.

    Also, Katz’s Level Practices in Digital Audio Part 2 is a must read: http://www.digido.com/media/articles-and-demos/13-bob-katz/21-level-practices-part-2-includes-the-k-system.html

  10. Thanks Justin! I read Bob’s book awhile back and learned a lot of interesting things. He regularly participates in a couple of mastering forums I visit, and I appreciate what he’s trying to accomplish with establishing the K-System standard. It’s been awhile since I read the article you referenced, but I definitely have read it at least once.

    Yes, I’m suggesting that you measure the sound of whatever audio you are working on at the time. If I mastered everything to, say, the K-12 standard, then I suppose I could calibrate my monitors and never touch the volume knob again. But my level varies according to what I’m working on, and obviously I mix at a much lower level than mastering, since there is no peak limiting involved.

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding your suggestion. Could you elaborate on how calibrating your monitors to a set standard precludes the need to adjust your monitor gain on a project-by-project basis? If I start my day mastering an orchestral soundtrack and then move to rock in the afternoon, don’t I need to turn it down?

  11. I was considering calibration as measuring something against a standardized reference.

    Using the reference pink noise that I linked to above, your monitor calibration would be at the K-20 standard. Turning your monitors down for the rock track 8dB would put your monitor calibration at the K-12 standard. If the rock track is too loud at this monitor setting, the track is way over compressed + make-up gain.

    I like having a consistent monitor level because then I know when something is too loud or too quiet and not have to second guess myself (unless I’m listening for way too long). It makes mixing track volumes so much easier and faster.

    I don’t master other people’s work though, so please do what works for you. =)

  12. It sounds like we both agree that it’s important to monitor at a consistent level, and have to adjust our monitor gain on a project-by-project (or in your example, genre-by-genre) basis to achieve that. As much as I’d like to sometimes, I can’t simply force a K-12 standard on my clients. The levels of the stuff I work with don’t conform to any standard, so I have to adjust my monitors to match. The final volume of a master depends on how the material responds to the peak limiter, and the taste of the client. Of course, the monitor level stays the same throughout the session, so I can tell if a song is too quiet or too loud.

  13. If you’re one of the legion of drones (like me) with an iPhone, you can get a pretty decent SPL meter app. It’s possible to A-weight and C-weight, it’s nice and readable, and when I A/Bed against another SPL it gave the same answer. Plus it’s fun to just whip out my phone and take SPL readings anywhere.

    I’ve got a few IO snapshots set up with my outputs calibrated to K-12 and K-14. That way when I need to work loud or quiet, I can adjust my front panel volume knob, but if I need to work K-14, then I’ll set the knob to a designated notch, fire up the mixer snapshot et voila, my C-weighted pink noise comes out at 83db. Makes it really handy for auditioning reference mixes. Granted, nto everyone has a digitally controlled IO that allows gain templates, but it’s not terribly hard to do with most off-the-shelf hardware.

    While you’re right that you can’t always force K-12 or K-14 on clients, it at least becomes a nice reference point when starting out.

  14. Just plopped down the $5.99 for the iPhone app. There are a number of them (one for $19.99!), but “SPL” has solid reviews and the price is fair. It’s showing about 5 dB hotter than my Radio Shack meter, but I see it can be calibrated.

    I just use that Neuropa track as my reference point on everything. It’s drilled into my brain.

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